Saturday, April 4, 2009

DADT - An Airman's Experience

The disastrous Don't Ask/Don't Tell policy on gays serving openly in the military has been much in the news lately, and has got me thinking about my own experience in the Air Force.  A great friend, QueerMuser wrote up his own tragic experience of being gay in the U.S. Navy, and that's where the idea for this post about my own time in the Air Force came from.  It's hardly as emotional as his own story, which I encourage you to read, but it really shows how DADT undermines trust in the military when it just doesn't have to if we'd wise up and let gay men and women serve openly.

The year all this started was 1992, and I was miserable in college.  I won't bore you with the details, but I'd come out of high school with a perfect GPA, offer letters from schools like University of Pennsylvania and Northwestern, and a single rejection from my dream school, Dartmouth.  But I didn't have the money for the big schools, and financial aid wasn't going to cover it.  So I'd gone to West Virginia University, realized my big plans wouldn't work with a state school diploma, and fallen hard into partying, and completely forgot my studies.  Even in my constantly inebriated state, I knew this wasn't a life plan I or my parents could accept.  I came home Thanksgiving of 1992, went and met an Air Force recruiter, took my ASVAB, got a score the recruiter had never seen before, picked a career, signed the papers, and sat my parents down and told them.  It wasn't their plan for me, but they thought it was better than what I'd been up to.  At this point, I'd never even said that I was gay, never done anything with a guy, and basically considered myself asexual.

The timing on this is important.  This was November 1992 - Clinton had just been elected, and part of the platform was letting gays serve openly.  When I went to the recruiter and filled out the questionnaire, the question about homosexuality was on the form, but it had a line through it.  I was told they weren't asking that in anticipation of the rules change.  The recruiter spent a bit of time talking about the policy change.  My recruiter, Scott was a nice guy who was actually from my home town, and I knew his sister.  It was Christmas, and I wasn't scheduled to leave until April.  To kill the time, I worked tending bar at the local ski resort, and volunteered part time in the recruitment office.  That would prove to be my first vaguely gay experience in the military, and I wasn't even in yet.

Scott, through his sister, and my work in the recruitment center, became friendly.  Nothing big, but we'd have a beer at the ski resort, where his sister also worked.  He took me to lunch one day when I was volunteering, and on the way back, we stopped by his house to let his greyhound out in the back yard.  Little things.  So when spring came, and he asked me and another waiting recruit out on his boat at the local lake.  Had I been wiser, I might've smelled a rat, because it was still cold, but neither I nor the other kid were that wise yet, and we both agreed.  

I was volunteering that day, and I left my car and rode out with Scott in his truck, pulling the boat.  Other Guy met us at the lake.  We got the boat in the water, ran around the lake, pulled into a cove and swam a bit in the icy water.  I still remember the contrast - Scott, mid-thirties, hairy, decent shape, and Other Guy, a smooth, super-skinny twink, a lot like a shorter version of me at the time, but with a better chest.  I'm remembering this in a lot more detail than I expected.  We got out of the water and it was freezing, we slipped out of our trunks and into dry clothes.  In retrospect, this was Scott's plan - getting us naked at some point.  But there on the lake nothing panned out.  We were cold, took the boat to the dock, and Other Guy left.  Scott and I loaded the boat on the trailer, and drove off.

We weren't very far from the lake, on a back road, as is common in West Virginia.  Scott pulls over and stops the truck.  I assumed he was checking the trailer.  He turned sideways in the seat of the truck (yes, my recruiter), and blurted out "Have you ever had a guy suck your dick?"  Honestly, I must've have visibly jumped when I stuttered "No!" because he started the truck and off we drove.  My departure was just a week away, and we never talked about that moment.  
At the time, I had no idea what to make of that moment, but in retrospect, I see the whole day for what it was - a seduction.  It's kind of dirty, if you think about it, a recruiter preying on young recruits who are terrified of boot camp and all.  It probably paid out for him a lot.  Modern me wishes I'd let it happen for me - I wasn't as naive as some, and probably wouldn't have found it predatory.  Other Guy, I suspect, would have frozen if he'd been in my place, and Scott would have had him.  Odd, since I'm the gay one.  Pretty sure he wasn't.  But he was younger and a lot more malleable.

I packed up and went to boot camp, maybe the least erotic way to have 50 guys living, sleeping, and  showering together one can imagine.  I don't remember a single errant erection or anything from anyone that would have screamed gay during that six weeks.  But I do remember the psychological aspect of it.  See, the physical stuff in boot camp is an afterthought.  The main thing is the mental shaping they're doing.  True, it's brainwashing, but I believe it creates soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines that the military needs.  But it involves breaking down everything you think you know about yourself, then rebuilding you.  Four and a half weeks in, I remember lying in my bunk, lights out, staring at the ceiling, and thinking "Oh, shit.  I'm gay."  It just totally slammed into my brain and was so true, so real, there was no denying it.  So I was finally honest with myself.  I was also practical.  I just tucked that piece of information away, and told myself I'd deal with that in three years and 47 weeks, or if Clinton came through.

Well, we all know what happened.  Everybody got up in arms, Don't Ask/Don't Tell was launched, and you could serve if you kept it to yourself.  The funny thing was, this actually made me feel safe.  I'd gone 21 years without a guy, I wasn't in a rush.  If I didn't do anything, I wasn't telling, and I could serve my time and move on.  I actually had a pretty good life in the Air Force - it's not like I was trapped on a ship or camping in the desert.  I ended up on Langley Air Force Base, outside Norfolk.  I was a computer programmer with a ridiculous security clearance - my first real lie to the military about my sexuality was for the clearance - I hadn't had to answer to enlist, and hadn't really known anyhow.  But they ask flat out about your sexuality for a security clearance.  I had to lie, but told myself since I hadn't acted on being gay, and they were really worried about blackmail situations, I was good.  That's when I made a decision that had a huge impact on my military and gay life, even if I didn't know it at the time.

Langley was crowded.  They were always pushing people to take the allowance and life off-base.  I'd been out of the dorms in college, and in an apartment.  I wanted out quick.  A guy I worked with and I became roommates, and moved off base, and began basically a good solid friendship.  I found out much later if I'd stayed in the dorms on base, I'd give up privacy, but man, would I have gotten laid!  Missed opportunities!

As it was, I settled in to domesticity.  Gunnar (roommate) and I spent a lot of time hanging out with a couple that had transferred in from Germany, Darron and Tracey.  It was the joke around the unit, on weekends it would always be Darron & Tracey hanging out with Gunnar & Ed - just like two couples.  It made some sense though - Darron and Tracey were a blast, bought a cool new house.  We all had a thing for wine, and we all went to a lot of wine tastings and festivals, which were more common than one would expect.  And other than the fact that Darron & Tracey slept together at night, in a lot of ways, they were no more a couple than Gunnar and myself.  They just had fun, drank, went to concerts.  We did it all with them, and crashed many nights at their house on the couches.  Darron had a love for exotic beer we picked up, Gunnar bought a boat we spent time on.  I cooked a lot.  We had a super-size kiddie pool in their backyard we'd lay in and drink during the summer.  We worked together on the same projects, were best friends - we knew everything about each other.  Except that I was gay.  

The fact that I didn't date wasn't weird, per se - a lot of people didn't date a lot, though they probably hooked up.  I didn't stand out, not being on base with the single boys, that I never had a girl.  I was a couple steps removed from the debauched sex (gay and straight) that went on in the barracks.  That is, I didn't stand out until Gunnar starting dating a Marine.  She was an officer.  We weren't.  This is about as big a no-no as boys liking boys to the military.  The way Darron, Tracey and I closed ranks to give them safe space to be together away from prying eyes should have been a clue to me that I could have come out to my friends.  We protected Gunnar and the officer, they would have protected me.  But it wasn't a topic on the burner for me at the time.

The Gunnar & Marine thing lasted about three months.  This is where it starts to hit home.  Darron, Tracey, Gunnar and I spend a lot of time drinking away Gunnar's heartbreak.  Occassional questions pop up about when I'm going to start dating, when is it going to be my turn.  I brush them off, they're not being mean or anything - it would be a logical topic of conversation.  In our quest for a buzz, we head off to a smaller wine festival (Virginia was really pushing its young wine industry at the time).  We got really trashed, nothing unusual, and we got really silly, laughing and carrying on with these three women, today, we'd call them cougars.  Darron was always really flirty, Tracey was OK with it if it didn't go too far, and Gunnar and I were single, drunk, young and in shape.  When the festival ended way earlier than we wanted the party to, we invited the women back to Darron & Tracey's house to keep drinking.

Somehow, I ended up in Darron's car, him driving, cougar in the front seat, me and cougar in the back.  Tracey, Gunnar and cougar in the cougar's car.  Our car stopped for wine & beer.  I get out, go buy a mountain of booze.  I come back, and find Darron in the car making out with both cougars.  This was way over his allowed line I knew.  I slipped into the backseat, and tried to gently diffuse the situation with a simple "What's going on here?" thinking Darron would snap out of the alcohol haze and behave.  That's not what happened.  Instead, he looked drunkenly at me and goes "Aww, Ed, are you feeling left out?" and leans back, grabs my head, and kisses me deep - I mean, seriously, to this day, one of the best kisses I've ever had.  Cougars loved it, cat calls all around.  He then pulled back, put the car in drive, and off we went to meet the others.

I'll never know if it was what happened in the car, or if it was more that the cougar in the other car turned bitch on Tracey (NOT a good idea), but the cougars didn't stay very long.  It was just the four of us, standard Darron & Tracey, Gunnar & Ed, sitting around drinking.  At one point, Darron looks at me, out of the blue, and says "Ed, are you gay?  Because it's totally cool if you are."  And honestly, at that moment, I knew that to these three people it would be completely cool if I was gay.  They wouldn't love me any less.  I think they would have loved me more, for taking down that wall and opening up to them.  And I almost said it.  And then my fear kicked in.  
We worked together, same unit.  I had an insanely high security clearance and access to computer systems and data that were beyond vital, and I'd lied getting that clearance - that's a military equivalent of a felony, jail time.  Darron had recently been promoted to staff sergeant.  This mattered.  By the rules, it might be one thing for Gunnar and Tracey, same rank as me, to turn a blind eye, but I knew the rules said Darron had to report it.  Never mind that not two hours before, his tongue had been all the way down my throat.  I knew the rules, and rules scared me.  I'd made it nearly four years.  I'd never acted on being gay.  I'd never told anyone.  I was withing the rules of DADT - if I stayed in the rules, they couldn't touch me, I could get out in a few months with an honorable discharge.  I was a gay guy living DADT, by the rules.  I looked a loving friend in the eye, tears in my own eyes, and lied to him.  I said no.  I said it in that frat boy, adolescent way.  And they all knew I was lying.

My friends, my coworkers weren't asking me to march in a pride parade.  They were asking me to be as honest with them as they were with me.  To trust them with my secrets, like I was trusted with theirs.  Darron knew I wasn't going to tell Tracey about the cougar kisses.  He was asking me to trust him.  And I didn't.  I was too scared of losing it all, being dishonorably discharged, to trust my closest friends, because they were in the military, and I worried about their loyalties when I shouldn't.

Granted, Gunnar & I were getting out shortly after that.  Tracey got pregnant.  Darron went into dady mode, the drinking slowed.  The hanging out dropped off.  A house that I'd spent 4-5 evening a week at became somewhere I never went, and it was almost immediately after that lie.  Maybe it was the other stuff.  Maybe it was the lie.  I'll never know.  Everything just changed.

And that brings me back to what DADT does to the military.  Opponents to gays serving openly say that it will destroy unit cohesiveness.  Soldiers won't trust each other.  I'd put forward that soldiers lying to each other is what destroys trust.  Darron, Tracey, and Gunnar weren't just my friends, they were my fellow airmen, people that I was expected to serve next to, and trust with my life.  And when I lied to them, trust was destroyed.  We stopped spending time together.  Lunches weren't taken together.  It messed up the whole dynamic.

So the argument is that gay soldiers serving openly destroys unit cohesion.  What the military drills into you when they're doing their brainwashing in basic is exposing the soul.  That's what was going on when I had my "Oh, shit, I'm gay." moment in the darkness.  My soul was laid bare and I saw myself.  From that point on, you're bonded with fellow soldiers - you're all bare, answering to an absolute authority, and those connectors are put out there - you bond and trust other soldiers.  It's there to make you trust your buddy in a foxhole.  As a social experiment, it's brilliant, and they've got it down to a science.  And it can be destroyed with a lie.  When are we going to make our soldiers stop lying to their fellow soldiers?  When are we going to let trust reign?


  1. It was nice to finally hear your DADT story. It's sad all the lies that have to be told by gays and lesbians that are currently serving our country. You're right that the lies are what truly hurt unit cohesion. Who someones chooses to love has nothing to do with that.

    I hope that more people come forward with their tales of DADT or as in my case of serving before it ever became policy. Since Obama has pledged to overturn this harmful policy, I think it's important for all of our stories to come out.

  2. Thanks for telling your story, Ed. It really highlights what others (including former Secretary of the Army, Clifford Alexander) have said about DADT: it doesn't help unit cohesion. On the contrary, it trains people to lie and be distrustful of the ones around them who need their trust most.

    I also particularly liked this line: "I packed up and went to boot camp, maybe the least erotic way to have 50 guys living, sleeping, and showering together one can imagine." I sometimes get the feeling that homophobes think gays want to serve in the army to live out some cheap porn fantasy.

    The truth? Many of us just want to serve our country the same as your average straight service member. Thanks to the stories of people like you and David who served the US in the face of DADT, younger gays will have options that many of us never did.


  3. Thanks for taking the time to share. We don't know nearly enough about each other, and our experiences. This helps me make better sense of my own experiences, and gives me ideas of what we should be telling our young people.


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